Transformation in a post apocalyptic world
If anything, this COVID-19 situation has exposed how woefully underprepared we are for a challenge of this magnitude.
At the human level: as this global pandemic equalises us before fear, loss, death and pain, societies have failed to come together across borders or across streets. Individuals set a shining example here and there but the rest mostly look inwards. Be it their nation or their home.
But we also see how unprepared we are to deal with something that challenges the basic tenets of our hyper-mobile way of life, where resources and motion were taken for granted. Remote working, shared resources and a habit of transparency are hard to come by at a moment’s notice, just because you now need them.
Re-allocation of resources to support the heroic work of the NHS staff is not something that can happen at the flick of a switch or the stroke of a pen, even if the intentions were there.
And in our own little bubble? Where banks and financial institutions are called upon to do small things like give folks mortgage payment holidays or re-finance loans?
We seem better able to take the risk and liquidity challenge on the chin (let’s face it, capital adequacy is not a regulatory whim, it is needed for Black Swan events and we seem to be living through a rapidly darkening specimen right now) than we seem able to deploy those solutions.
Too soon? Is it too soon to talk about this?
Or is it potentially almost too late and therefore we don’t have a moment to spare?
My mortgage provider has sent me an email saying they will provide payment holidays if required in line with their duty of care and the government’s instructions. Followed by three texts saying “don’t call us, we will call you” when we work out how to do this. To Joe Bloggs on the street this seems sinister. A claw-back of a promise made. To me, it is an admission that their creaking infrastructure can’t deliver what is needed when it is needed.
This is not a plug for Foundry, guys (although on some level, admittedly, it could and should be).
This is a “word of the day” moment.
When we are talking abut becoming “agile” we are really not talking about a software development methodology.
Agility is the ability to respond to changing circumstances, be it opportunity, threat or emergency. Like now.
Agility means I know I need to make a change to my loans repayment schedules and I can deploy that change within minutes after the decision has been made by management and ratified by compliance. Minutes.
But by not investing in the infrastructure that powers agility, we are now waiting for the requirements to be written and the engineers to be freed from other projects so they can eventually cut and test code before it is deemed ready to be pushed out to production.
It is nobody’s fault.
But it is everyone’s problem.
Meanwhile my high street bank is emailing me regularly under the highly misleading subject of “How We Are Supporting You During COVID-19”. But if you read the mail – and I always read my mails – what they say is, “please don’t call us, our people are ill and our call centres are understaffed”. It breaks your heart. For the people who are sick. And for the people who may need to make transactions that are not supported by the patchwork of digital services of uneven depth that the bank offers.
Calling the call centre was always annoying but at least it got the job done.
Starting from a place of pain
Now we make do.
Now we are in crisis mode, as consumers, as service providers, as societies.
We are in crisis mode so we will make do. We will be patient and understanding.
But when this ends? When this is over, and it will be, will we go into damage limitation? Will we go into learn and improve mode? Or will we look at our balance sheets and go, “oh brother, we need to focus on revenue”.
It is human nature, it is business sense, it is vital that a business survives in order to serve.
So the focus on revenue will be relentless.
And rightly so.
But can we make sure we don’t lose sight of the last thing that broke, the last thing that hurt?
If we had the right infrastructure to deliver against the requirements of the moment in a way that was timely and efficient, wouldn’t things have hurt less? Wouldn’t fewer things have broken?
In banking, historically, not taking action has been a safe bet. So when big decisions come down the pipe the instinct is to break them into smaller ones with a lower risk footprint. That is often a good call. That often works. But not always and increasingly less so especially when it comes to infrastructure where, making big decisions smaller, leads to the hodgepodge we are dealing with now. We lovingly call it spaghetti. It doesn’t deserve the cuteness. It should be called the snare that killed the last guy that tried to fix it and that is why it has not been touched since. Understandable. But that can no longer carry the day.
It is the place that aches the most, the place that ails us the most, the place that causes and experiences the most pain. So it is where we have to start rebuilding, after this crisis is over.
Getting to a place of gain
Hold onto this for a moment, don’t forget quite yet, This fear of ‘what the hell is happening’ that greets us every morning of this pandemic era. On a personal level. And on a business level.
We are all scared. We are faced with an unknown and unknowable situation. We don’t know what awaits us round the corner.
But we know what we need to do right now, and how fast. And we know we can’t do it.
So when we get our heads above water, this is the exam question.
How do we fix it.
How do we get to a place that, next time life throws us into an unknowable situation that is impossible to navigate on the basis of what we know and agility is the name of the game, how do we ensure we are in a better place to serve, deliver, survive? For our communities, our people, our future?
We should do all that we can. All. That means everything within our gift and power.
It may be hard work but in the grand scheme of things it is not a lot. This pandemic should have at least helped put bankers in our place: we provide key services. But hospital workers, postmen and shelf stackers, cashiers and nurses, delivery folks and doctors trumped us.
We were needed to provide the invisible rails for payments and transactions to continue. And we did that.
We were also needed to make some adjustments, some changes, on reflection, to help humans cope. And we were prepared to do that, but couldn’t. Our infrastructure didn’t let us. The effort it took was incommensurate to the size of the ask. So. It is time to make things as simple as possible, but no simpler than that.
Our job is to provide financial services.
They are ubiquitous and often complex, but they are constant, they are a hygiene factor of our lives that didn’t even stop during the global pandemic. So. We are part of the fabric. And as such we need to be reliable, sturdy and dependable. We need to deliver against the promise. We don’t need to take centre stage. Far from it. We need to be reliably invisible in the background. And for that to happen we need to make our infrastructure robust, agile and as simple as possible, but no simpler than that.
And we need to do that because it is the only way to deliver against our mission.
It is the only way we can be of use and value when hard times strike.
It is also the only way to stay in business.
And survival has a whole new meaning these days. So whatever we do, once this passes – and it will – let us at least retain the focus on what really matters and the urgency to do it. And be better prepared next time. As we hope that there will never be a next time. We might as well do all that we can to prepare.
ALL that we can. And no less.
By Leda Glyptis
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption as CEO of 11:FS Foundry.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!